Jack Grealish couldn’t hide his frustration. And England’s pockets were unable to lean inside Wembley on Tuesday night either, some of whom booed the decision. There were 62 minutes left, the team was drawing 1-1 with Hungary and Gareth Southgate had replaced Grealish, replacing him with Bukayo Saka.
The television cameras stopped on Grealish as he took a seat. The midfielder shook his head before putting it down and running his fingers through his hair.
It was the night Southgate tried a different combination, forgoing his usual low of six defensive-minded field starters and choosing five whose first instinct is to attack. It was Phil Foden and Mason Mount as the 8 from 4-3-3, leaving only Declan Rice at the forefront of the defense, and there is no doubt that it was what the fans had demanded.
Southgate himself had said on Monday that he had wanted to experiment with the extra attacking-minded midfielder since the start of last season, but that the timing had never been right.
This was it, the stars had aligned and yet everything collapsed. England were too open for Southgate’s liking, unable to press with the required cohesion as he worked to overcome Hungary’s compact 3-4-3 setup, in which the two central midfielders, Adam Nagy and Andras Schafer, were extremely attached to Foden and Mount.
When Southgate sought to restore balance, it was surprising and significant that his first move was to replace Grealish. Working from the left wing, Grealish had been England’s most involved attacking threat, even if overall picks were rare. He had certainly contributed more than Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, both in a bad mood. They were substituted after 75 minutes.
Grealish paired well with Luke Shaw at times in the first half, releasing the left back early on with a move that led to a cross and a sniff for Kane. And it was Grealish who carried the ball with more intent, challenging those who followed him, trying to get Hungary out of shape.
He won the free kick that led to the John Stones tie after a left-to-right crossover run, but it’s this desire to wander, to play with the ball, that may put Grealish slightly at odds with Southgate’s structures. That’s particularly true without the ball, even if the coach says Grealish has improved a lot in this regard over the past 12 months.
What Southgate wants to see from his team in an offensive sense is for players to get behind opposing defenses. The benchmark is the 3-2 Nations League victory over Spain in Seville in October 2018, when Kane left Sterling and Marcus Rashford behind. It was a masterclass in counterattack.
Grealish prefers to face the last line with the ball at his feet, to use his explosiveness. With technical players around them, such as Foden and Mount, England have to rely on more complex combinations which, against well-organized teams, can be more difficult to execute. Southgate clearly believed he needed Saka’s higher pace against Hungary.
The bottom line with a non-systems man is that he better bring up the numbers, which is what Grealish did with Aston Villa last season. He finished with seven goals and 12 assists in 27 appearances (he was out for three months towards the end due to injury) and that was why Southgate found him a home for England.
This time, after Grealish’s £ 100 million British record moved to Manchester City, he has two goals and two assists in 10 appearances, but Southgate is aware that he is just getting started at the club. Grealish must adapt to the complexities of playing Pep Guardiola.
With England, it’s one goal and five assists in 17 games, Saturday’s goal against Andorra. There were two great assists during the Euro 2020 final, against the Czech Republic and Germany, but has it added to a consistent end product? With Grealish, there is a feeling that he has to produce a lot to justify himself, that being such a lovely player to watch is not enough. Southgate’s demands on him can seem a bit relentless.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism